Blue Photon smiled gratefully at Tango as she turned the console screen off. "Thanks."
"I couldn't stand any more, either," the red-haired woman said. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone burn before..."
"I don't see why we had to watch it at all," Imbolc put in, not lifting her head from Blue's shoulder. "I mean, we all knew it'd be horrible."
"We had to see," Blue said, his mouth setting into a thin line. "We had to know for sure he was dead, and that the Factory won't be started up again."
"Not to mention the DISers," Tango added. "I don't know why they don't burn them, too."
"Compassion?" Imbolc muttered, but shook her head at their curious looks. "Well, it's over. Do you have any idea who's going to take over your department?"
"Oh, there's rumours," Tango said vaguely. "Everyone from the Mysterious Somebody to the Rose of Sharon down in A/V to some weed who's been missing for decades. I don't think anyone knows yet."
"Well, I hope it's someone nice," Imbolc replied. "I remember who we got last time a Deputy was killed."
Blue reached up one hand to smooth his wife's hair. "So do we, love. We got imprisoned for that, as I recall."
Imbolc shuddered slightly. "Yes... but you were released again. The Bindweed, though, she's still in control in Finance."
"Then be glad you're not there any more," Tango put in. "Operations is far more your scene anyway."
"Especially since it means you get to work in the Nursery," Blue added, smiling. "You can combine work and pleasure."
Imbolc's expression turned dreamy. "They're so sweet when they're that age," she said wistfully, "and Arthur gets on so well with them..."
"Isn't he in school yet?" Tango asked, surprised. "I thought he was five already."
"Only four," Blue corrected. "He was born the year after the Crisis, and it's been five, remember?"
Tango blinked. "I knew that. Really I did."
Imbolc shook her head slowly. "He will be moving up soon, though... it'll be a shame not to be able to watch over him all day."
"You could transfer to the DIA," Tango suggested with a grin. "I'm sure they'll have a camera set up in the school."
Imbolc shivered. "Under the Nightshade? She's not as bad as the Bindweed, but I still don't like her much..."
"Yes, true... all right, I take the idea back."
Imbolc smiled. "Good. Speaking of back, I ought to be getting it. The Wisteria's expecting me, and I don't want to keep him waiting."
Blue chuckled. "Sometimes I wonder if you're going to leave me for that Plant... no, not really," he reassured her as she lifted her head to give him a worried look. "Goodness knows we've kicked you out often enough when we had to go on a mission."
"Say hi to your brother for me, will you?" Tango said to Imbolc as the latter stood up. "How's he getting on with that girl of his, anyway?"
"What, Terri?" Imbolc laughed. "She's still not interested, but he goes down to Personnel at every opportunity... I'm almost worried about how obsessed he is."
"And we know all about obsession, don't we, love?" Blue put in, winking at her. "Give Arthur a kiss for me, please."
"You should come by and see him more often," Imbolc said with a hint of accusation in her voice. "I'm worried he's starting to forget what you look like."
"I'm starting to forget what I look like," Blue replied wryly. "With all these missions we've been having lately, I can't remember the last time I got to look in a mirror."
"It's because the last film's out," Tango said with a sigh. "But, well, at least the last film's out. The workload should slack off in a few months as the fangirls find something new to drool over."
"And by 'in a few months' you mean 'when Orli's next film's released,'" Blue pointed out. Tango rolled her eyes.
Imbolc smiled faintly. "Our workload never lightens," she said, "and that's why I've got to get back. I'll see you around, Tango, and Blue... I'll see you tonight." She blew him a kiss, and then left.
The console creaked as Acacia's fist bounced off it. "I can't believe they actually went ahead and did it! Does anyone really believe those trumped-up charges?"
"You're repeating yourself," Jay observed quietly. "And you're going to break the console if you're not careful."
"I don't care about the stupid console!" Acacia exclaimed. "The Sunflower Official is dead and all you can think about is the-"
"Stupid console," Jay interrupted, finally putting her knitting needles down. "No, it isn't. I'm just as upset as you are, Acy, but getting locked up for damages? Not going to help."
Acacia sighed, but moved away from the console. Jay would have been reassured, except that she moved towards her bow. "And nor is that."
"And why not?" Acacia demanded. "They killed the SO, we kill them. Helps just fine as far as I'm concerned."
Jay shook her head quickly. "They're Flowers, Acacia. No vital organs and you can't poison them."
The brunette sighed again, pulling an arrow from her quiver and tapping it on the table restlessly. "Maybe we could ask Miss Cam to send our Minis over? I mean, there's a reason we're not allowed them in HQ, right?"
Jay nodded thoughtfully. "I can see where you're going with this... but it wouldn't stop the DIA from arresting us. We need more help before we can bring in the balrogs."
"Shouldn't be hard," Acacia muttered. "The entire DMS'll be on our side, surely."
"You know what some of our co-workers are like," Jay pointed out, "a lot of them hated the SO." Like you, she didn't add.
"... shut up," Acacia said grumpily, stabbing the arrow moodily into the desk.
Jay bit her lip. "But, er, there's bound to be lots who'll help, anyway. What's that girl called, the one who's – who was always popping up to his office? Nyx something."
"Nightingale," Acacia supplied. "The Luthien rip-off."
"Not everyone can be named after a tree," Jay said mildly. "But she did like the SO, so she should be up for helping out."
"Great." Acacia stood up suddenly. "Then let's go and-"
"-how in Arda do we have a mission? We don't even have a Department Head?"
Jay poked the console. "Looks like they've got someone working on it though, and- oh. Uh-oh."
Acacia's eyes narrowed. "What?"
Acacia hissed softly. "She's mine."
"They're still alive?!"
"Well, some of them," Dafydd said, looking warily at his partner. "Didn't you know?"
"No... how would I?" Steve asked. Dafydd shrugged.
"I thought everyone knew. Yeah, apparently the last few surrendered after the Bracket Fungus got killed, so they locked them up in their own cells. Quite poetic, don't you think?"
"Yes, quite," Steve said vaguely, then asked, "Do you, uh, happen to know which ones were left?"
"How would I?" Dafydd inquired. "I'm sure there's a list somewhere, the DIA are big on lists."
Steve swivelled his chair and started tapping at the console. Dafydd watched for a moment, and then asked, "Got an old enemy you want to be sure is gone?"
"The opposite in every respect," Steve muttered. "My sister."
Dafydd raised an eyebrow. "Your sister works for the same department as us, remember? She's partnered to the guy who recruited me."
"My other sister," Steve snapped. "I know perfectly well where Elanor is, but Ontic-"
"Whoa, whoa, your sister is Ontic?" Dafydd stared at the back of his partners head, which nodded. "As in, the psycho of the DIS? The one who tortured everyone she got her hands on, who-"
"All right!" Steve exclaimed. "I know what she turned into, but she didn't used to be like that!"
The elf blinked, taking half a step back. "Okay, um... right. Anyway, she's still there, yes."
Steve half-turned. "I thought you didn't know."
"Well, I know that," Dafydd corrected. "I noticed when- what're you doing?"
"Calling Elanor," Steve said shortly. "She'll want to know this, too."
Dafydd nodded, and then groaned. "Oh, no... Steve, please don't tell me you're going to try and break her out."
"All right, I won't tell you. Ah, El! There you are."
The blonde girl's face appeared on the screen. "Here I am. Hi, Steve."
"El," Steve said, leaning forward, "I just found something out. You know how we thought Ontic was killed during the Crisis?"
Elanor bit her lip. "Yes..." Then there was a voice from behind her.
"Good riddance, too."
Elanor whirled. "How can you say that about my sister?!"
Mortic Wentway, her partner, appeared in the background. "Your sister?! She almost killed me when she was first recruited, how was I supposed to know she was your sister?"
"You could have asked!" Elanor shouted. Steve coughed, waving at the screen.
"Hey, guys?" The two of them turned to look at him. "Thanks. Anyway, Dafydd's just told me that she's not dead. She was captured, and she's still locked up."
Elanor's eyes went very wide. "Ontic... is alive?"
Steve nodded gravely. "She is. And I think we-"
"-should come over to your RC to talk a bit," Dafydd interrupted, and slapped his hand against the button to cut the transmission. Steve turned and scowled up at him.
"What was that?"
"Self-preservation instinct," the elf said bluntly. "Or do you really think the DIA wouldn't lock us up for saying what you were about to say?"
"... point," Steve admitted grudgingly. "Come on, then, let's go down and see them."
"I'm glad you see it my way," Dafydd said with a smile, walking towards the door.
"... I'm just saying, it doesn't look like Mirkwood. There's a distinct lack of, well, murk. And trees. And being-outdoors-ness."
"All right," Constance snapped, "I'm sorry. I don't know what went wrong."
"Something fairly major," Aella commented. "Shining metallic buildings are out of place everywhere in Middle-earth, never mind Mirkwood."
Constance scowled. "Well, if the stupid Remote Activator would stop giving me error messages, I'd try again. As it is... maybe we could have lunch?"
Aella looked around the cafeteria they'd appeared in. "I don't know, this looks like the sort of place they'd get snippy at uninvited guests in. Maybe we should just leave, instead."
Constance glanced out of the windows that made up the majority of the cafeteria wall. "Well, I suppose the weather is pretty nice out there," she said grudgingly. "And you never know, the RA might work better."
"Sure, that," Aella said, looking at her in amusement. "Come on, the door's just over here."
The pair wandered out through the huge glass doors onto the paved area outside. Aella took a deep breath, and smiled. "Wow. Smells like home."
Constance sniffed cautiously. "I dunno," she said, "HQ's a bit more stuffy than this."
"And HQ isn't home," Aella pointed out. "Come on, let's see where we did end up."
The two women wandered across the forecourt towards the nearest corner of the building. Constance kept glancing back, shaking her head. "I don't know... doesn't this all look a bit, well, familiar?"
"From what?" Aella inquired. Constance shrugged.
"Not sure, I just think I've seen it all before... oh, here we go." Through the glass they could see a wall, and then a massive chamber on the far side. Walking up to the window, Constance cupped her hands and peered in. Aella started to join her, then stopped when her partnered stiffened and turned around, her face pale.
"Constance? What is it?"
The black-haired Agent stared at her. "It's... they're... it's..."
"Um..." Aella leaned closer to the window herself. Inside was a massive chamber, sunk slightly into the ground, so that she was looking out over the tops of ranks of some sort of podlike machines. "What...?"
"You don't recognise them?" Constance asked, still with a wild look in her eye. "You don't remember?"
Aella blinked, lowering her gaze to look into the nearest pod. It seemed to be full of some sort of glowing silver liquid, with a vague humanoid shadow in the midst of it. A nagging suspicion started to form... "Oh, no. No."
Constance nodded grimly. "Yes. The Mary-Sue Factory. I was right, I had seen it before – I was on the team that destroyed it the first time round. I guess we didn't do as well as I thought."
"I wasn't with the PPC then," Aella said vaguely. "But... didn't the DIA find out that the SO was reopening it? And shut it down again?"
"I think we're going to have to assume that the DIA was lying," Constance muttered savagely "If the SO was innocent, and they were setting it up again, and were discovered..."
"... then it all makes sense," Aella agreed, shaking her head slowly. "What can we do?"
"What we can't do is go up against Internal Affairs directly," Constance said. "We'd be locked up in minutes. But... do you have the spare RA on you?"
"Mm, somewhere," Aella agreed, dropping her pack to the ground and riffling through it. "What've you got in mind?"
"We use that to get home," Constance said, tapping her own Activator against her palm, "and then I take this down to DoSAT and get that new kid – Dann? – to extract the location of this Factory from it. And then... we figure out how to destroy it. For good."
Agent Louise looked up at the ceiling of her Response Centre and groaned. "Oh, gods."
"What?" Selene asked. "What's wrong?"
Lou turned to look at her partner. "It's starting," she said. "It's starting again."
Selene stared. "... okay, is this just you being weird again?"
Lou laughed bitterly. "If only. Look, I'm going to take a shower. Don't try to join me."
Selene watched her leave the room, and shook her head. "Strange girl," she said, turning back to her book. "Very strange."
The conversation in Elanor and Mortic's RC was almost painfully casual. Ontic had been mentioned briefly, and then dismissed with barely even a thought. Eventually, the console let out a [BEEEEEEEEEEEEP!] and Mortic stabbed at the button. Drawing an exaggerate breath between his teeth, he shook his head. "Looks like a tough one."
"Let's see," Elanor replied, standing up and looking over his shoulder at the screen. "Ouch, yes." She glanced at her partner quickly. "I don't know that we can manage it, actually."
Steve nudged his partner with an elbow. "Would you like us to come and help out?" the elf asked. Mortic looked over at him.
"Don't you have to get back?"
Dafydd shook his head and pointed at Steve. "Sprained an ankle last mission. We're on leave until he recovers. Does your mission involve lots of walking?"
Elanor skimmed the text. "Looks like it's Rivendell-based," she said with a soft sigh of relief. "Elrond's second daughter persuades Legolas not to go on the quest in order to seduce him."
"No great loss," Dafydd muttered. "All right, then there's no reason we can't come along. It'll give me a chance to see how he responds to an outside environment, so's I can tell the-- well, tell whoever heads up our department now if he's okay yet."
Steve rolled his eyes, looking at his sister. "Sometimes I can't tell if they assigned me a partner or a keeper," he complained. "But yeah, all right. I'll come."
"Then we're agreed." Mortic fiddled with the buttons on the console and then stabbed the large red button. The portal flicked open. "Just remember," he said, "it's our mission. Don't let your rage get the better of you, either of you."
The PPC's most famous Assassins had met up with their potential co-conspirators in a small courtyard. While Jay struck up a loud, animated conversation with Jared Calinson – filled with enough sensitive material to ensure that any DIA watchers would be fascinated without having any justification for action – Acacia leaned close to Nyx Nightingale. "You know what this is about?"
"I can guess," Nyx murmured back. "Have you heard who they got to replace him?"
Acacia shook her head. "We've been on a mission. Who?"
"The Nightshade. There's probably a message on your console."
Acacia's eyes narrowed, but with a supreme effort she refrained from leaping out of her seat and going on an instant rampage. "That's just adding insult to injury."
"My thoughts exactly. Are you going after her?"
"We've got our sights set a little higher," Acacia informed her. "How much do you know about the Mysterious Somebody?"
Nyx shrugged. "How much does anyone know? I was there for his big speech five years ago, but the details have sort of-"
"Slipped your mind? Everyone says that. We..." Acacia glanced at her partner, who for some reason was standing on the table declaiming in a British accent. "... uh, we did a little checking around a couple of years back, and no one in all the PPC can remember what he looks like, or even what his voice is like. We're pretty sure he's some sort of wizard, or has one working for him."
Nyx bit her lip. "Could be tricky to face, then. Wizards tend to be able to defend themselves, and if he can erase memories like that..."
"I know," Acacia said grimly. "We talked through a few ideas on our last mission, but to be honest, when the least implausible involves blowing HQ sky-high and restarting the PPC elsewhere..."
"I see your point." Nyx shook her head. "Let me think... you could unleash some sort of robot in his office, that can't have its mind messed with."
"But he might be able to do other things," Acacia pointed out, "and anyway, we don't know where his office is. We can't even program one to seek for him, because we don't know what he looks like."
"Is there anyone in the department who's particularly resistant to mind-control?" Nyx asked. Acacia shrugged.
"I can tell you who's most susceptible, but how do you measure that sort of thing without seeing it happen?"
"By species, maybe," Nyx murmured. "I'm trying to think of an example..."
"Hutts," Jared supplied, leaning over briefly. Jay, who was halfway through reciting Galadriel's song of Eldamar, didn't notice. "And Jedi. We don't have either."
"There must be more, though," Acacia said irritably. "Anyway, it's irrelevant. All I need to know is this – will you two help us?"
Nyx barely even glanced at Jared before nodding. "He can't do this. He dies, or we die trying."
"Preferably the former," Jared added.
Constance paced in front of the console. "So what do we know?"
Aella looked worried. "Should we really be discussing this here?"
Constance sighed, looked around, and then picked up a knife. Aella's eyes grew wide and she leant away. "I didn't mean--!"
"Don't be stupid," Constance snapped, and then slid the knife between the arm of her uniform and her DMS flashpatch. The threads holding the patch in place snapped, and she pulled it off. "Look."
Aella took the proffered scrap of fabric and examined it. "Cactus. DMS logo. What...?"
"The other side. Honestly..."
The blonde flipped the patch over and frowned. "Some sort of... metallic thread?"
"It's a circuit," Constance supplied. "No idea what it does, but if we're going to think about bugs, then they might just as easily be in the uniforms as the RC. What do you want to do, talk naked?"
"We could change into other clothes," Aella pointed out hesitantly. Constance snorted.
"What other clothes? They took mine away from me two years ago, when the uniform became mandatory."
"... yeah, mine too." Aella flipped open her notebook. "All right, then. Point one: the Mary-Sue Factory has been rebuilt."
"We did a pretty thorough job of destroying it," Constance said thoughtfully, "so you'd need a lot of resources to reconstruct. Last time it was funded through the PPC, so there's no reason to believe this time was anything different. Agreed?"
"Agreed." She glanced at the list. "Point two: the Sunflower Official has been executed, in part for restarting the Mary-Sue factory."
"Executed by the DIA, get that down." As Aella scribbled, her partner mused. "All right. I don't believe he'd do that, but there's no physical reason why not. The DIA, though, is run by the Mysterious Somebody's former secretary. That means that their truth or lies reflect on him. Point three?"
"Point three," Aella read. "Despite the DIA's accusations against the SO, the Factory is still intact today."
"Implication: The DIA was lying, or they would have destroyed it." Constance nodded sharply. "Two alternatives. First, they just made it up and the Factory being rebuilt is a coincidence they didn't know about. Then they'd be lying simply to get rid of the SO. I don't like it."
"Me either," Aella agreed. "Coincidences of that kind haven't been too common around here since they shut down Legal."
"Right. Then we're left with the second option: they rebuilt the Factory, and then framed the SO for it. Which means... what?"
Aella shrugged. "That the Head of the PPC and the Head of our security department are traitors to the organisation."
"You take that very calmly," Constance said accusingly. Aella nodded.
"I'd already figured it out. And anyway, the Mysterious Somebody set up the DIS. Remember? It's obvious if you think about it."
Constance stared at her partner. "I wish you'd tell me about these things," she said in a hurt tone.
Aella glanced at her. "You had more fun figuring it out," she said in a bland tone. "Did you want to go and talk to Dann?"
"- going for a picnic, how does that sound? Everyone from the Nursery out on the grass, with lots of lovely food."
The little boy with green hair looked at his mother with a serious, thoughtful expression. Finally, after a long pause, he said, "What's a grass?"
"Something you only get on the outside, nephew," Narto's voice said from behind Imbolc. She turned and smiled.
"Narto. Not often we see you down here."
The young man shrugged. "You know me and kids. Actually, I'm leaving again. If, that is, Arthur will permit it."
The boy nodded gravely. "I p'mit it, Uncle Nar. Just 'member to come back soon an' tell me about the grass."
"I will, don't you worry." Narto turned to go.
"Wait," Imbolc said. "Why'd you come down here at all, Narto?"
Narto grinned wryly. "Because someone hasn't been visiting as often as he should, and couldn't remember the way." He pointed back over his shoulder at the previously unregarded figure in the shadows.
"Blue..." Imbolc breathed, standing up, but Arthur moved faster. Bounding across the room, he launched himself into the arms of his laughing father.
"Daddy Daddy Daddy!"
Blue scooped his son up. "Oof! You're getting heavy." Holding the boy close, he looked at Imbolc. "How's he been?"
"I's been very very good," Arthur informed him seriously. "Mummy says we're going on a picnic to see the grass."
Blue eyed his wife amusedly. "The grass, huh?"
Imbolc shrugged. "They don't get out much. We're all too busy."
"Yes, I can tell." He looked around. "Narto, could you- hah, he's gone." The Assassin kissed his son on the cheek and lowered him gently to the ground, and then walked over to Imbolc and hugged her to him. "I missed you," he murmured.
Imbolc smiled, relaxing into her husband's arms. "I missed you, too. So did Arthur."
"I can tell he did," Blue said amusedly. "He's trying to climb up my leg, aren't you, kid?"
"Noooooo," said Arthur's voice from down below. Blue laughed, and then kissed his wife on the lips.
"Is there anywhere I can sit down? I just had to chase a 'Sue through the woods, and I think I bruised something important."
Imbolc grinned. "Come on, there's chairs over there." The three walked across the room and sat down, Arthur climbing onto his mother's knee. "So what is this, just a social call?"
Blue gave her a wounded look. "For the most part, yes," he said.
The man sighed. "But, I was also wondering if you'd heard about our new Head of Department."
"I haven't," Imbolc admitted. "Is it anyone nice?"
Blue's lip twisted. "It's the Nightshade. Apparently getting rid of the SO was a good career move for her. I mean, I'm glad she did, but..."
"But," Imbolc agreed. "So she's running two departments now?"
Blue shook his head. "I checked. They did a bit of shuffling. The Marquis de Sod's running the DIA now, and Personnel's under a Bonsai Mallorn who I've never heard of."
Imbolc nodded thoughtfully. "Could be good for the DIA," she said. "A fresh face and all."
"He's got a nasty reputation, though," Blue pointed out.
"Narto says that it's mostly exaggerated," Imbolc said. "He'd know, what with the time he spends over there."
Blue nodded thoughtfully. "A fresh face, then. New blood."
"Whatever." The Assassin looked over at his son. "Mind if I stay and play with him for a while?"
"Ooh! Stay, Daddy, please stay!"
Imbolc smiled. "We don't mind, no... but don't you have to get back?"
Blue shook his head, grinning. "I managed to get a day's leave. I don't have to be back until tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow... morning?" Imbolc's widened eyes held a question, Blue's smile an answer. He leant in close until she could feel his breath brushing over her ear, and whispered:
"I did say it was a social call."
The knock on the door startled Lou awake. She sat up in the tangled heap of blankets that served as her bed, ignoring the mumbled protests from Selene. As the vampire rolled over (a vampire, sleeping on the floor? Lou had been very persuasive), Lou climbed to her feet and stumbled over to the door. "Who is it?" she asked, pulling it open.
"It's Morgan," the woman outside said, leaning on the doorframe. "Can I come in? It's safer."
Lou's quick glance confirmed that Selene was adequately covered. "Sure," she said, and closed the door behind the older woman. "What's up?"
Morgan looked at her with an amused expression. "How about I tell you while you get dressed."
Lou looked down. "... oh. Sorry, I was sleeping." She waved one hand in the direction of the blankets while looking around for her underwear.
"Yes, so I see," Morgan replied, shaking her head slowly. "Honestly, you two give all Agent-pairs a bad reputation."
"Yes, well, that's your problem," Lou muttered, snagging her underwear from the top of the console and pulling it on. "What was it you had to say?"
Morgan looked at her levelly. "You already know. We get it through different means, but you know as well as – better than – I when something's coming."
Lou sighed and nodded. "I'd hoped I might be mistaken, but... yes. Something big."
"Any ideas what? All she could give me was the standard signal. I've not had a chance to check yet."
Lou grimaced. "You should really move her closer to your RC, you know."
"I keep intending to," Morgan said, and then paused as Lou pulled her top on over her head. "But I haven't, and probably never will."
"No details," Lou admitted. "It's like it's not even decided yet, and you know how rare that is."
Morgan laughed. "You know better than I, again. Any idea who's the focus?"
"I've heard lots of names," Lou said vaguely. "Mostly in the DMS, though, which sort of figures."
"It does, doesn't it?" The older woman shook her head. "So, all we know is that something's happening, and it's entered on the Assassins. Wonderful."
"At least you've got an escape hatch if things go bad," Lou pointed out. "I have to stay to the bitter end."
"And with Legal out of commission..."
"Anything could happen," Lou finished. Then she frowned. "Have you seen my trousers?"